As a buzzword, “dioxin” has quickly come to represent all that’s wrong with Japan’s mish-mash of contradictory and ineffective environmental policies.
Most people know the stuff is bad for you, and they probably also know that it’s mainly a byproduct of burning garbage. That’s all they need to know in order to feel worried and angry when they hear that Japan accounts for 40 percent of all the dioxin spewed out by the industrialized world.
Last Monday, the government finally passed legislation with teeth to restrict dioxin emissions more effectively. The move is being met with cries of “too little too late,” but the very fact that it’s in the news every day focuses people’s attention on just how close the danger is to their own lives. They know that dioxin is out there waiting for them. They just don’t know where exactly.
They look to the news media to tell them, but there they get a lot of vague information and confusing signals. Last February, TV Asahi found itself in hot water after it broadcast a bold report on News Station about high dioxin levels on vegetables in Tokorozawa. Later, it was discovered that the high levels were misreported. TV Asahi was then blamed for the sudden catastrophic drop in Tokorozawa produce prices and forced to retract the story and apologize repeatedly.
Though the blunder was deserving of a reprimand, the censure that the station received was ridiculously overblown. Rather than being seen as trying to fulfill its responsibility of informing people about possible health dangers, TV Asahi is now considered a reckless destroyer of farmers’ livelihoods. What’s sadly ironic is that for years residents of Tokorozawa have been pressing the local authorities to stop the indiscriminate burning of waste by private incinerators that take advantage of lax zoning laws in the area. Many of these residents probably felt betrayed when they saw how easily TV Asahi folded under pressure.
It’s not surprising, though. The Japanese news media are inherently squeamish about reporting stories that have possible negative commercial ramifications. TV news shows almost never initiate reports on the dangers of smoking or alcohol consumption for fear of alienating sponsors. They never carry out independent investigations into the safety of automobiles or household appliances. Even when they report auto accidents that are caused by mechanical malfunctions they hide the car’s make and model, despite the fact that such information is central to the significance of the story.
As a result, environmental and consumer issues become abstractions, and this leads to cynicism on the part of consumers who trust neither the media nor the companies they’re in bed with.
This mistrust explains the popularity of the booklet “Katte wa Ikenai (Things You Shouldn’t Buy),” which was published at the end of May by the magazine Kinyobi. The booklet lists 89 retail products that consumers should avoid, and explains in detail why they should avoid them. The first printing was gone from most Tokyo bookstores in a matter of days.
Kinyobi is a fiercely liberal newsweekly whose editorial board contains some of Japan’s most famous journalists and pundits. However, many people who are by nature attracted to the kinds of topics that Kinyobi covers and sympathetic to the magazine’s anti-authoritarian bent don’t read it because they find the tone stodgily intellectual and the style impenetrable. “Katte wa Ikenai,” however, seems geared toward a more general readership.
With the demise of Asahi Journal several years ago, Kinyobi remains the only generally available media organ that can report consumer news without fear of angering advertisers for the simple reason that it has no advertisers to anger. Even noncommercial NHK shies away from specifying products or manufacturers in its consumer reporting, because it relies heavily on the goodwill of corporations for its financial and economic reporting. Kinyobi’s operations are supported by subscriptions, bookstore sales, advertisements from left-wing publishers and special editions such as “Katte wa Ikenai.”
The consumer products listed in the booklet are divided into food, beverages, household products, cosmetics and medicine. They have been singled out for proscription because either 1) they contain substances that may be bad for you, 2) they harm the environment, or 3) they do not perform as advertised. In some cases, the proscriptions are obvious: Xylitol gum by itself will not prevent cavities. But in most cases, the information is unsettling in its specificity. Even something as seemingly innocuous as convenience store o-nigiri contain enough preservatives and additives for a trip to the moon.
We all know or at least suspect that the things we buy contain chemicals that aren’t good for us, but having these dangers explained in black-and-white with familiar product names attached drives the issue home with startling immediacy.
In the afterword, one of the contributing editors, consumer advocate Shunsuke Funase, writes that “the media’s greatest flaw is its inability to criticize because of sponsors.” Funase is acknowledging that Kinyobi’s role here is not only to inform consumers but to stick it to the media for not owning up to their public responsibility. There is none of the usual pussyfooting you find in general publications or news shows. These are not products you should consume in moderation or with care, but items you should not buy at all. The uncompromising tack is a direct challenge to the media.
The brisk sales of “Katte wa Ikenai” prove that people want this information, but it would certainly be more effective if they got it from TV Asahi; meaning, from a source they watch or read every day. “Katte wa Ikenai” is a one-shot reality check, a bit of guerrilla theater smack dab in the lobby of the corporate old boys’ club, but six months from now the people who’ve read it will probably forget they did.